During the 1980s, a critical histo-graphical debate was triggered by the publication of some rather influential books by Bernard Lewis. He argues that the ‘intellectual curiosity’ and the predisposition and will to study history, traditions, languages, and cultures of the ‘others’ is peculiar to Europe and the emulators or inheritors of the scholarly tradition of Western Europe.
As a writer that’s often acknowledged for his work during the very period in which these new approaches to subaltern studies and global history projects were beginning to gain ground, it was fairly natural for him to claim that it’s only due to the European Renaissance that detachment, sophistication, and curiosity to appreciate and study the literary achievements of hostile and alien societies was developed into the human society.
Over the decades, many intellectuals have echoed these arguments. Many have applied them to particular cultures and contests. Franco Cardini, an internationally well-known religious historian and medievalist, went ahead to claim that the “disinterest in all civilizations other than the Islamic ones demonstrates characteristics of the culture that emerged from the religious revolution of Muhammad (PBUH). Many scholars have tried to highlight the ‘remarkable openness of Europeans to learn from other cultures’ while emphasizing that curiosity has become the ‘trademark of progress’ on its own. A host of academic publications have confirmed that these approaches are indeed problematic because, from colossal empires to hunter-gatherers, every society that exists or has existed has been curious in one way or another.
F.Hermes notes that the problem here lies in the Westerners continually neglecting the corpus of medieval writing about the ‘other.’ Their limited knowledge about complex documents and non-colonial languages or manuscripts found and produced in places that are difficult to access have erroneously led some scholars to emphasize the alleged lack of curiosity in ‘others.’
The concept of ‘curiosity’ can be radically grasped only when seen through a much broader spectacle, rooted in the new-old narratives connected strongly to the ‘European exceptionalism.’ A plethora of scholars link the key achievements in humankind’s history, including, among many others, “freedom of research, critical thinking, the secularity of politics and culture, experimental science, the industrial revolution, autonomy of the individual, capitalism, modernization, technological inventiveness, and more,” to the influence exerted by the actions and knowledge of Europe and it’s distinct ‘leaning towards curiosity.’ Other scholars locate the origins of various universal concepts, such as the ‘notions regarding freedom’ in the ancient Western world.
Peter Burke argues that these claims have now been rooted strongly in various ways and forms. He calls it the ‘grand narrative’ of the Western civilization establishment, specifically triumphalist account about the achievements of the West, starting from the ancient Greeks and linking them to the Renaissance, which includes the Scientific Revolution, Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, and so on. These historical periods are frequently presented as moral success stories and as Europe’s pro-activeness to allegedly ‘innate passivity of the East.’
What’s largely left out in such approaches is the structural contributions of the ‘others.’ For instance, take the case of the debates surrounding democracy and the largely successful and related attempt to detach the legacy of ancient Greece from its ‘oriental’ and Mediterranean background. Ellen Meiksins Wood argues that it’s rather an artificial attempt to detach the ancient Greek from, let’s say, Persia or Egypt, as if the Greeks were always living a separate history as ‘Europeans’ and were not part of a larger ‘Eastern’ and Mediterranean world. The symbols, such as Athena’s olive tree or the myrtle dedicated to Aphrodite, are all borrowed from ancient Egyptian traditions. This implies that all scholars that link Europe’s roots to Ancient Greece are simply, whether consciously or unconsciously, recognizing the oriental connections of Europe, its dominant religion, and philosophical roots. Christianity was an Oriental religion, and Europe was Agenors king’s daughter’s name in Greek mythology—king of Tyre in contemporary Lebanon.
What’s important here is to acknowledge the need for ‘cross-pollinating’ and supporting the mainstreaming of a more syncretic and entangled knowledge so streamline a place for the contributions and ‘curiosities’ of the ‘others’ at the center stage. It can be achieved through the aversion of epistemic violence, which involves proactively opposing the view that non-Westerners are weak, passive, or disinterested. If one wants to understand themselves and the fluid world they inhabit, it’s critical to enable the retrieval of unique ways of knowing and a comprehensive understanding of the epistemologies of the south.
The author is a part-time journalist and full-time researcher with many articles published about history, political science, international relations, and civilizations. Her prime focus is to use qualitative and quantitative methods to test various social sciences and International Relations theories to highlight various influences of appropriations on the world.